Vivaldi's father, Giovanni Battista, was a barber before becoming a professional violinist. It was Vivaldi's father who taught him to play the violin at a very young age. The two would later tour together. Giovanni Battista was a strong influence in young Vivaldi's life. Giovanni was not only a professional violinist, but he was also a composer who wrote using the name Giovanni Battista Rossi (Rossi in reference to Giovanni's red hair, which Vivaldi inherited). Giovanni, though not a rich man, was influential in the musical community and founded an association of musicians, the President of whom was Giovanni Legrenzi, the maestro di capella (lead maestro) at St. Mark's Basilica. One of Vivaldi's earliest compositions (written at the age of 13) shows influences from Legrenzi; it's theorized that Legrenzi was Vivaldi's tutor in composition at that time.
Vivaldi was always thought to have poor health because of "tightness in the chest." Today, his doctor would have given him some albuterol and sent him on his merry way. Vivaldi was an asthmatic, which prevented him from playing wind instruments; it was also the reason why Vivaldi became so good at music. He often had to remain indoors to prevent having breathing issues. This is very common among artistic geniuses. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a literary genius from 19th century America of Scarlet Letter fame, was also reported as being frail as a child, often staying indoors and writing. Brahm Stoker, the Irish writer who penned Dracula also had a "frailty" and "limp" that kept him inside, unable to take on physical labors of any kind. Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and countless other wriiters and musicians found themselves first in uneviable positions health-wise that eventually became a springboard for their genius. Vivaldi had the same creative opportunities, thanks to his asthma. Asthma's no big deal in the 21st century, but in the 18th century, it was considered a disability. And probably one of the reasons why the virtuoso violinist and composer ended up in a less prestigious position than he deserved.
In 1713, ten years after Vivaldi's ordination as a priest, he was named maestro for a Venetian orphanage, Pio Ospedale della Pieta, or Devout Hospital of Mercy. That same year, Vivaldi began to compose opera, a very popular form of entertainment at the time. As maestro for the orphanage, he was paid to write concerts, practice and perform but this never made Vivaldi rich--it was a small stipends. Because there were two competing opera houses in Venice, Vivaldi had opportunity to compose opera and receive payment for each one--a good way to supplement his modest income. When we think of great men like Vivaldi, we think of them in reverse. Great, before anything else, when in fact, most of the world's geniuses were just regular people, working regular jobs--and usually more than one--as in Vivaldi's case. Oftentimes, it took the rest of the world many decades to recognize that genius, and in some cases, decades more, even after death.
But it didn't take that long for the Venetians to see Vivaldi's talents. At least, at first....
In 1718, Vivaldi became the Maestro di Capella for the governor of Mantua, where he lived for three years. Despite this new prestigious appointment, Vivaldi remained maestro for the orphanage, writing and performing 140 concerts between 1723 and 1733.
Vivaldi moved to Rome in 1722 and thus began the most prolific period in his illustrious career. During the next ten years, his genius would be recognized by the Pope, and European royalty would soon follow. He wrote a wedding cantata for France's Louis XV. He was also knighted by Emperor Charles VI and given an invitation to be the royal composer in Vienna. But Vivaldi's good fortune was about to turn.
Like pop stars and rap artists of today, the music-audience in Europe was very fickle. While Vivaldi's work was embraced for a time, his period of popularity was relatively short. Vivaldi would end up dying a pauper, penniless, in the house of a namelss widow where he was renting a room. He was buried in a simple grave. One of the greatest composers on the planet was only given a pauper's peal of bells at his funeral. Remarkably, Vivaldi's work became shadowed over the centuries, only revived in the 20th century by Fritz Kreisler (a Jewish-born Austrian virtuoso and composer who later converted to Catholicism at the age of 12 because of anti-Semitic leanings in Austria; Kreisler immigrated to the United States during World War II), who wrote a piece in Vivaldi's style, claiming it to be original to Vivaldi. When the piece became popular, other artists, including Ezra Pound, brought Vivaldi's music back to life...after more than 200 years.
Vivaldi's most famous work, his series of violin concerti called The Four Seasons, plays as I write this. It is sweet, pastoral but also has an underlying sadness that sings to me even in my sleep. The sadness is belied by hope...a hope in a natural serendipity or perhaps even, God, that Vivaldi was experiencing at the time. Expressing this through the context of four seasons represented primarily through the violin, the savior of Vivaldi's childhood, makes it all the more compelling. And so does the fact that Vivaldi composed more than 500 works in his lifetime, including 40 operas. That kind of talent sat in the open hand of Europe, which, after losing interest, swiftly crushed the composer's work and life. As I listen, carefully, I believe Vivaldi foresaw his sad future. He knew his window of success was to be brief, like the fleeting seasons of spring and summer. But even in Vivaldi's fall and final winter, there is a quickening faith and hope that though he was to end, as we all must, his work would somehow endure. Even after being buried for more than 200 years.
Until next time, dearest readers, until next time....